Sunday, March 16, 2008

In A Fit of Austen

About two weeks ago, wanting something pleasant and non-violent on the television as background noise, I put on Mansfield Park. Not the Patricia Rozema version of 1999 or the IDC version that aired in the States during the past two months, but the older BBC dramatization of the novel, dating from 1983, which accurately delivers the storyline crafted by Jane Austen. In that adaptation, Aunt Norris is indeed self-serving and self-absorbed, and Fanny is exasperatingly self-effacing.

What this has led to has been a peculiar state of mental distraction. I am driven to seek out Jane Austen. Blogs, books, DVDs, social networking sites -- each has contributed to the fit. I started out reading a thread on LibraryThing which led me to this blog, which led me to this woman, who created millinery for a few of the dramatizations, then on to the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) where I learn that the 2009 JASNA Annual Meeting will be held in Philadelphia!

Suddenly, my mind is feverishly tossing out ideas, wondering whether I might produce an academic paper on the topic of sibling relationships in Mansfield Park of a quality that would get me on the JASNA program. There are the sisters, Maria and Julia, who compete with each other for Henry Crawford's attention, a situation certain to create friction. There are the Crawfords themselves, Mary and Henry. Mary and Henry share certain confidences with regard to their dealings with the Bertrams which suggests a certain fond tolerance of one another. There are the Bertram brothers, Tom and Edmund. Tom is profligate while Edmund tends to conservative ways, another situation rife with conflict. Finally, there are Fanny and her brother, William. (There's no clear reason given for why Fanny is so attached to William, but she ends up enduring a great deal from Henry Crawford on his behalf.) I imagine myself offering my thoughts on Fanny Price and William to an audience of eager Janeites. This is an OPPORTUNITY!

Okay. Reality check. (For one thing, there's an obligation to join the society even to participate as an attendee at the annual meeting. It's not that expensive to join, but it does imply a serious level of commitment to Austen, rather than my own dilettante attitude.)

At the same time, I've been digesting Mansfield Park for years now without ever publicly expressing my feelings on the subject of Fanny Price. She's something of a controversial figure as you know if you've ever spent time over at the Republic of Pemberley. (See the reference to the "Fanny Wars" here.) Is Fanny Price an insufferable, self-righteous little prig? Or is she actually a frail, somewhat crushed female, plain and repressed, whose triumph is greatest when the hero realizes the superiority of her mind and scope of her character in comparison with that of the worldly Mary Crawford?

Each time I have read Mansfield Park, I have been struck by Austen's characterization as well as her skill in choosing how to reveal personalities. I have always assumed that Austen knew readers might shy away from Fanny's self-effacing nature. Fanny isn't an ideal heroine, by any stretch, yet Austen shows us that as quiet and despised as Fanny may be, she has the strength of character that those around her have not developed. This time around as I re-read the novel, I was struck by the scene of Mary Crawford offering Fanny a chain to use with Henry's gift of a cross. Mary seems sincerely to extend a generosity to Fanny, in part as a kindness towards pleasing her brother and in part because it is a small thing to her to share with Fanny something that Mary has in abundance. She sees Fanny's reluctance in accepting the jewelry and laughs good-naturedly at the scrupulousness of Fanny's conscience. Fanny is horrified that Mary would so casually give to her a necklace that Mary received from her brother; we are left to suppose that Fanny would never part with a present that William had given her. Mary isn't in the least disturbed by the idea of offering it, but Fanny, we assume, can't imagine that evidence of a brother's regard would be given to her so lightly. There's a good case for the scene's use as an indication of each woman's mindset regarding a brother and his gift. In both instances, the cross William gives his sister and the chain Henry gives his, the value associated with an article of jewelry is a way of revealing how each woman regards the familial bond.

I don't want to go into more detail. Thanks to good friends who teach at the college level, I am ruefully conscious of some idiot student googling the point and turning it in for a grade, but the joy of reading is that one is taken with an idea (in the midst of boring, hum-drum daily life) and turns it over and plays with it. Why else read?